5. The Attack on Hope
In chapter 4, I promised to explore Adrienne Martin’s defense of the rationality of hope—and I will, but not in this chapter. Before defending hope, we must give space to the argument against hope. Since the seventeenth century, modern philosophers have thought that to hope for an outcome is to desire it while believing it is possible but not certain. Is hope, so understood, a good thing?
In April 2014, Simon Critchley wrote an essay for The Stone, one of the opinion pages for the New York Times, entitled, “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope” that captures the modern objection to hope. Writing at Easter time, Critchley meditates on the dangers of Barack Obama’s campaign theme, “audacious hope.” Obama picked up the phrase from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Jr. and said that this audacity is “the best of the American spirit.” It is “the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary.” If that’s what hope is, Critchley thinks it’s dangerous, a vice rather than a virtue.
Political decisions based on hope rather than realism lead to disaster. Critchley reminds us of Thucydides’ account of the Melians, when besieged by the Athenians. The Athenian army was clearly stronger, and the Athenian navy controlled the waters around Melos. Still, the Melians hoped: they hoped they might hold out for a long time, they hoped their allies, the Spartans, would come to relieve them, and they hoped to win honor for standing against oppression. The Melians refused to surrender. Their patience exhausted, the Athenians conquered the city, killed all the men, and made slaves of the women and children. Critchley says:
Thucydides offers no moral commentary on the Melian Dialogue. He does not tell us how to react, but instead impartially presents us with a real situation. The dialogue is an argument from power about the nature of power. This is why Nietzsche, in his polemics against Christianity and liberalism, loved Thucydides. This is also why I love Nietzsche. Should one reproach Thucydides for describing the negotiations between the Athenians and the Melians without immediately moralizing the story and telling us how we should think? Not at all, Nietzsche insists. What we witness in the Melian Dialogue is the true character of Greek realism.
Here is the heart of the attack on hope. Because it is unrealistic, hope can (and often does) make our lives worse. Critchley applies the lesson to contemporary politics, thinking in particular (in 2014) about Obama’s policies toward the Middle East. But his warning can be easily applied to individual lives. Imagine the tragedies people make of their lives by “audacious hope” in regard to gambling, investments, business decisions, or marriages. Against evidence to the contrary, they hope that this horse will win, this penny stock will prosper, this business partner will have integrity, or this potential spouse will understand me.
Now hope is a positive emotion, the objector will say. It feels good; no one denies that. But when we act on the basis of hope rather than on realism, we court catastrophe. When catastrophe comes, we feel despair. And it’s not only the case of a bad feeling replacing a good feeling. In many cases the disaster created by audacious hope leaves us objectively worse off.
Critchley concludes his essay with criticism of politically liberal idealism, but his words apply equally well to individual hopes:
You can have all kinds of reasonable hopes, it seems to me, the kind of modest, pragmatic and indeed deliberately fuzzy conception of social hope expressed by an anti-Platonist philosopher like Richard Rorty. But unless those hopes are realistic we will end up in a blindly hopeful (and therefore hopeless) idealism. Prodigal hope invites despair only when we see it fail. In giving up the former, we might also avoid the latter. This is not an easy task, I know. But we should try. Nietzsche writes, “Hope is the evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.” Often, by clinging to hope, we make the suffering worse.
We can sharpen Critchley’s point. If hope, whether we call it “audacious” or not, leads us to act in ways that often make our lives objectively worse, hope is not a virtue. For modern philosophers like Nietzsche or Critchley, only reasonable hopes count as virtues. In many cases, hope is not reasonable, and when it is not reasonable, hope is a vice.
Nietzsche and Critchley picture the contest as one between hope and realism, and they come down on the side of realism. If they had used an older term from the virtue tradition, they might have opposed hope to “prudence,” the antique translation of phronesis (usually rendered as “practical wisdom”). Aristotle counted phronesis as a crucially important virtue, since a person needs it to rightly practice courage, generosity, friendship, or any other moral virtue. But Aristotle said nothing about hope as a virtue; hope enters the virtue tradition through Christianity. So here is another way to conceptualize the attack on hope. If hope is to be counted a moral virtue, it should be governed by prudence (phronesis, practical wisdom). Since “audacious hope” runs free of prudence, it is no more a virtue than the so-called “courage” of the foolhardy soldier who races toward the enemy forces alone.
Now despite this attack, I think hope is a virtue. But the attack on hope, whether couched in Nietzsche and Critchley’s terms or in Aristotle’s, helps us to appreciate the importance of the next chapter, where we will examine Adrienne Martin’s defense of hope’s rational status.